Years are a big deal at a cemetery. You can’t glance in any direction without seeing dates carved or etched onto stones.
But while there’s a “start” date and an “end” date, the monuments cannot attest to what’s really important — what happened in-between.
This month — February 2023 — we come to a historic date of sorts. Fifty years ago, Jerome “Jerry” Miller took over as caretaker for Calvary from the retiring caretaker John Udelhofen. John had been at the helm for over 20 years.
“I’ll never forget that day as long as I live,” said Jerry’s son and current caretaker Terry Miller. “I was going to elementary school at Saints Peter and Paul. I came home and Mom told me that Dad had gotten a new job. I asked her what job?”
“Well, he’s going to run Calvary Cemetery,” said Sheila Miller.
“I thought, ‘How embarrassing!'” Terry remembered, laughing.
That’s kind of ironic considering Terry has been caretaker himself now for almost 28 years.
Of course, Terry started out by helping his Dad. The set up was starkly primitive then.
“There was no phone, an old wood stove and an outhouse. In cold weather Dad would light a fire in the morning,” Terry said.
There was also a Model A Ford pickup and an ancient tractor. Jerry’s “office” was a chair in the corner of the old shack by a 50-gallon oil drum and the wood stove. The work was backbreaking.
Primitive or not, Jerry made the job a success. He tackled the hard work, often excavating sites with only a shovel. He kept deadlines and was thoroughly reliable. He also had a talent for grief support. He knew what to say and when to say it, often easing sorrowing family members. And as the years wore on, Terry found himself helping more and more.
Although Terry didn’t realize it at the time, it gradually became clear that the “embarrassing job” was really a vocation that involved planning, finance, leadership and a considerable quota of emotional intelligence.
Jerry had a talent for finding ways to make things work.
“I remember Dad paying me out of his own pocket,” Terry said.
Jerry also had a sense of humor that attracted good help in spite of the hard work and sometimes very unpleasant weather.
Terry remembers asking his Dad why Terry’s nickname, “RIP”, was carved on so many headstones. (“RIP” stands for “Rest in Peace.”)
“To this day, I’m not sure why Dad gave me that nickname…I always assumed it was made up from a short version of my name…Terry…Ter…then Rip,” he said.
As the years went on, Terry spent summers working at the cemetery. When he finished college and went into the working world, he still kept involved at Calvary, working here and there to help out.
When Jerry retired, the board asked Terry if he wanted the job. It was a smart move on their part. Terry knew everything about the cemetery already, had all the job skills and, in reality, that been on an apprenticeship since he was in grade school.
Coincidentally Terry brother, Tom, was already vocationally attached to Calvary. From a base interest in art and sculpture, Tom’s time at the cemetery led him to put two and two together, connecting sculpture and monument fabrication. He built a solid business providing monuments for Calvary families. Tom’s innate talent, fair pricing and customer service created a virtual monopoly of lifetime projects.
It’s hard to imagine what Calvary would be like without the Miller Family, the leadership from the board and the continual positive feedback and support from Calvary families. It’s also amazing to think of all the people the Millers have laid to rest, including some of their own. Jerry and Sheila’s stone is not far from the cemetery office. Terry sees it every day.
“It’s all about the people,” Terry said. “Dad knew that. I think that’s why everything worked out so well.”